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Governor Steunenberg Assassination

A few days after Christmas in 1905, former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg walked home after visiting his insurance agent a few blocks away in downtown Caldwell, Idaho. He had no idea that an assassin's bomb awaited him at the front gate.

"Steunenberg's children were all home -- one was back on Christmas vacation from Walla Walla, Washington -- and Frank was of a mind to spend the day enjoying his family," writes Randy Stapilus in It Happened in Idaho. "But around noon a visitor upset his plans."

The insurance agent had come to inform him that his life insurance policy would expire in a couple days and that he needed to come down to the office to renew. Reluctantly, Steunenberg agreed to go out that afternoon. It was a fateful decision.

At 44, Steunenberg had been out of the office for almost four years. While he had received almost fifty death threats for his role in crushing the unions in the Coeur d'Alene mining district of northern Idaho while he was Governor, his fears for his safety had eased with passing time. 

"His yard was fenced and a gate had been built in front of his house," Stapilus reports. "When Stuenenberg pulled the wooden latch to open it, and then closed it again, an explosion erupted, an explosion that rocked the Steunenberg household and was heard all over town. Dynamite had been attached to the gate. The former governor died within hours."

Steunenberg, many believe, was  the first victim of a deliberate bomb assassination in American history.

The assassin, a former miner by the name of Harry Orchard, had been stalking Steunenberg with murderous intent. When the Governor stopped off at the Saratoga Hotel on his way home from the insurance office, Orchard saw his opportunity:

"I was playing cards in the saloon of the Saratoga. A little before dusk, when the game was over, I walked into the lobby and saw Steunenberg sitting there engaged in conversation with someone," Orchard recalled in a diary used by biographer LeRoy Edwin Froom in the "The Man God Made Again," published by Pacific Press Publishing in 1952.

"I quickly went up to my room, No. 19, picked up the bomb, wrapped it in newspaper, put it under my arm, and went downstairs. He was still in the lobby but preparing to leave. I hurried out to his residence by a back route and placed the bomb close to the side gatepost. I tied a fishline to a screw eye in the cork and around a picket of the gate. This was so contrived that when the gate opened it would pull the cork out of the bottle and let the acid run out, thus setting off the caps and the bomb. It was arranged that if he did not open the gate wide enough to pull the string, he would still strike the cord with his foot as he walked through. Either way would be equally effective. 

"It was a cold, blustery day, and there was considerable snow on the ground. After laying a paper over the bomb, I covered it with snow. On my return to the hotel, I passed Steunenberg on his way home, and I hurried as fast as I could, hoping to get there before the bomb went off. But about a block and a half away from the hotel I heard the explosion. It rocked the supper dishes on the tables of Caldwell and was heard miles away. 

"Arriving at the hotel within a couple of minutes, I went to the barroom, found the bartender alone, and called for a drink." 

Orchard was quickly collared and charged with the crime along with three prominent union leaders suspected of masterminding the assassination. "Big Bill" Haywood, a controversial union boss, was among those brought to Boise, Idaho, for the trial.

"It became Idaho's trial of the century," according to Stapilus in It Happened in Idaho. "The prosecutors included a future Idaho senator, William Borah, and governor, James Hawley. The defense attorneys included the nationally renowned Clarence Darrow, then building his reputation as one of the country's foremost trial lawyers.

"It was a spectacular trial, watched nationally in the newspapers (and attended by flocks of reporters), and it made the reputations of many of its participants. After three months, Haywood and the others were acquitted, but the debate went on -- and goes on today -- about whether they in fact engineered the assassination.

"Harry Orchard was sentenced to death, but after a declaration that he had become a devout Christian, the state pardons board commuted the sentence to life imprisonment."

Like the conversion that spared him the gallows, Orchard's crime and prosecution introduced new and frightening challenges to America's legal system. Never before had a murderer been convicted of killing a person that he could not see or touch when the crime took place.

Orchard changed the definition of murder, just as his actions turned public opinion against unions and the death penalty. He made many folks believe in the possibility of redemption in even the most hardened criminal, but his assassination of Frank Steunenberg, as the Unabomber would prove generations later, will forever haunt us from out of the past. 

Gov. Frank Steunenberg

The Trial of the Century 
From Fire in the Hole, an examination of the mining labor conflicts that shaped the West during the early 1900s. KUED Productions

It Happened in Idaho
by Randy Stapilus
The Globe Pequot Press, 2003

Idaho is an unusual state in many ways, from the shape of its borders and its peculiar name to its sand dunes and hot springs and inland seaport.

Outside the state, man y folks have heard about its potatoes and Hemingway and Evel Knievel's daredevil stunt, but few have heard about its mountain men and its outlaws and its natural disasters.

Among the brief histories told in this book by newspaper columnist Randy Stapilus are...

  • The 1832 rendezvous of trappers and mountain men at Pierre's Hole.
  • The 1860 settlement of the town of Franklin, which was located in Idaho by mistake.
  • The bloody Bear River massacre of 1863.
  • The theft of official territorial papers in 1865 that moved the state capital 200 miles south.
  • The 1892 miners' riots in the Coeur d'Alenes.
  • Butch Cassidy's ride through Idaho in 1896.
  • The trial of Diamondfield Jack in 1902.
  • The election of America's first Jewish Governor in 1914.
  • The creation of Sun Valley in 1936.
  • The Teton Dam flood of 1976.
  • The saga of Claude Dallas in 1981

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Justice for All
Justice for All
Legendary Trials of the 20th Century

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